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Wednesday, March 4, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 13.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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University Theatre's well-intended Yum Yum Room doesn't connect
Arthur Noble and Ashley McHose do a great job portraying the awkwardness of new relationships.
Arthur Noble and Ashley McHose do a great job portraying the awkwardness of new relationships.
Credit:Brent Nicastro

We all need time and space to be alone with our thoughts. That's especially true in the teenage years, when the speed of life seems to accelerate at an unbearable rate. This theme of special, separate, personal spaces, and the constant struggle to sort out existence, runs throughout the University Theatre production of The Yum Yum Room. Unfortunately, the play glosses over its core of truth.

Adapted by Australian playwright Stephen House with director Andy Wiginton for this, its North American debut, The Yum Yum Room is one of the UW theater department's plays for youth. This production will travel to Dane County high schools in an effort to bring theater to students who might not otherwise get the chance to see it, and to get them thinking about bigger issues.

The story centers on 17-year-old Tom (Arthur Noble), a young man grappling with the usual teenage issues of first love, first heartbreak and the pain of asserting independence. Tom also has to deal with bullying from classmates related to his single father's sexuality, to the reverberations of his mother's leaving when he was very young, and to an all-too-literal hole in his heart. Seeking solace, Tom turns an old shack into his Yum Yum Room, where he can eat candy (as a small child) or smoke pot (as a teenager) without interruption or interference.

Between stilted, often repetitious dialog and an overabundance of exposition, the play does a lot more telling than showing. Interesting and relevant issues are brought up (anti-gay bullying, abandonment, sex, drugs, learning to trust), but instead of closely examining the character's struggles, the show hovers around the outskirts. It's hard not to feel like you're watching a PSA instead of play.

Noble does a fine job with the material he's given, managing to switch convincingly between young, nave Tom and his older, wounded, awash-in-hormones self. Veteran Madison actress Sarah Whelan's Mrs. Mac, the kindly elderly woman who lives next door and acts as a sometimes confidante, is lovely and relatable -- but the script gives her short shrift, at times reducing her to a caricature, a doddering but harmless old sage.

Tom's father (Adam Aufderhaar) also gets less than ideal treatment. He's never given a proper name, and his dialog comes across as strangely out-of-date and wooden. It's as though his character was plucked from a 1950s sitcom, using words like "mustn't." Perhaps because of that, Aufderhaar never quite seems able to find the soul of the character, leaving him a well-meaning but one-dimensional element in a play that otherwise tells the audience that adults have feelings, too.

In one of the most honest sequences, Tom's world is thrown into further disarray by the arrival of new girl Annabelle (Ashley McHose). The two quickly hit it off, and both actors do a great job portraying the awkward playfulness (and painfulness) of new relationships.

The Yum Yum Room ultimately feels like a half-obscured memory of adolescence and its angst. Still, the "it gets better" message is timely, and the cast and crew have clearly put a lot of effort and heart into the performance. The set design by Cynthia Dean and light design by Jono de Leon stand out, creating a gorgeous web that links the various sections of the stage and plot.

The goal of creating a youth theater culture, of providing kids with the opportunity to explore deeper themes in their lives, is a great one. But this script is too cursory and clumsy to connect.

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